The Forest of M.

All the things that are happening now – the pandemic, the war in Syria, bush fires in Australia, Brexit, the Whakaari volcano eruption – all of that is the fault of my grandfather. He caused it all by being a good man and a loving father, but nothing could excuse him, and he knew that. He just dragged on his existence in the home for the elderly and contemplated the end of the world. He thought how different everything could have been had he been more steadfast in his faith. He had one thing to do, and he failed at that.

It was a nursing home for veterans, for he had been a soldier, took part in the battle of Stalingrad, went all the way to Berlin. He must have been one of those good Russians, I hope, one of the few who didn’t pillage or rape, coming back with no foreign watches or jewelry. He was also older than other soldiers. He was lucky (he said) that they let him serve at forty. Otherwise, he would have forged his documents. He was going to fight regardless of his age, regardless of the fact that he had a young child at home.

Not that he ever felt safe in Moscow. One night in 1939, my grandfather heard the apartment buzzer, and said goodbye to his wife. He was sure they were coming to arrest him. Three men stood on his threshold, but they didn’t ask him to come with them. They just stood in the hallway for a few minutes shifting from one foot to the other. “Perhaps they made a mistake,” thought my grandfather. He even offered them a drink, but they declined. After they left, my grandmother started giggling nervously. She laughed and laughed, she just wasn’t able to stop. My grandfather should have slapped her face, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.  She went on laughing until she sobbed and exhausted herself, and told my grandfather to thank his Jewish God for saving him. 

Less than a year later my father was born.

My father worked in a chess factory. He carved little figurines out of wood. He could make them very small and very special, every figurine possessing its own character. Each of the sets he carved was unique, and the factory sold them abroad for a lot of money. That’s why they kept him despite his drinking. He was a quiet drinker. He had the humility of the man who knew he should have died, but didn’t, and who should have been a vehicle for something higher than himself, but wasn’t. He was just my father. He was just my grandfather’s son. And instead of boisterous twins vying for their birthright, he got me, an oddball whom no man would marry.

Every weekend my father and I would visit my grandfather in his nursing home. The few hours we spent there seemed interminable. My father rarely made it through the journey sober. Grandfather, enraged that my father had shown up drunk, cursed at him, my father shouted back, and the hours were spent in incessant bickering that made me want to cover my ears with my hands. Or, if my father was sober, no words would pass between them at all, and we would waste our visit in complete silence, interrupted only by sighs.

Very late in his life my father told me about what happened in the Forest of M. It was the year 1953 (or was it 1954?), so he must have been around fourteen. It’s a pity he wasn’t more precise in his recollection, because sometimes I think that the death of Stalin had something to do with it, and thus I am curious whether it happened before or after the March of ‘53. But my father’s memory was muddled. He said they had gone to the forest: my grandfather had promised him a campfire. If they were camping, then it couldn’t have been winter. Or maybe they went to get some spruce branches for the New Year, for each Soviet citizen celebrated the New Year. Then it could have been winter after all. But he made no mention of snow.

My father said they went into the forest, and the deeper into the forest they went the more his suspicions grew. He had seen his father put a knife into his pocket. He thought: “My father wants to kill me.” With each step, he was more convinced. His father (my future grandfather) walked behind him. My father turned his head and saw the look in his father’s eyes. He thought again: “My father is going to kill me,” and he started running. His father ran after him. They ran silently, desperately, through the thick Russian forest. Then my father’s leg gave out and he fell. He lay helplessly on the ground, for he was a slight fourteen-year old, or maybe even thirteen. He saw his father come closer, the knife in his hand, about to stab him. 

“How could I have known,” asked my grandfather at his son’s funeral forty years later (he died of liver cirrhosis), “that the voice I had heard in my head while queuing in a canteen was really the voice of God? It might have been a delusion. It had asked me to sacrifice my son, my baby. I almost did it. But then I threw the knife away. I helped my son to get up, and carried him home. I loved him more than anything. I guess I loved him more than the world. 

“On my way home,” he said, “I looked up at the sky. The clouds parted, and I beheld the disappointed face of God. Then I knew that we were all doomed, and that it was my fault. I asked God: let me just bring the boy home. 

“And He let me carry him.”

Maria Rybakova
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  1. Kinton Ford

    I love this. “Another Abraham,” as Kafka says, and with a perfect twist/

  2. George Smiley

    Playing with all the ‘exotic Russian’ topoi: look, she plays with wooden blocks with cyrillic letters on it. Then take one drop of Old testament mixed with some contemporary problems and ready it is – another skilly of pseudo-deep pseudo-literal cooking…

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